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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Defiant Putin visits Mariupol, a city razed by Russian forces

Municipal workers repair fallen power lines at the site of a Russian airstrike in Kostyantynivka, Ukraine on Saturday, March 18, 2023.

By Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Ivan Nechepurenko and Andrés R. Martínez

President Vladimir Putin of Russia made his first trip to territory captured by his forces since they invaded Ukraine more than a year ago, traveling late Saturday to the ravaged city of Mariupol, where Russia staged some of its most brutal attacks of the war.

The visit appeared to be both a defiant gesture just a day after an international court issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes and a demonstration of Putin’s commitment to the fight before the arrival in Moscow of President Xi Jinping of China, a crucial economic partner to Russia since the invasion began.

Mariupol became a symbol of Ukraine’s agony when Russian forces laid waste to it with artillery starting soon after the invasion. It later evolved into a beacon of Ukrainian resistance as, for weeks, the city’s last defenders endured a bitter siege at a steel plant.

An adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said Sunday that Putin’s visit showed a lack of remorse. “The criminal always returns to the crime scene,” the adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, wrote on Twitter.

The Kremlin said that Putin had flown by helicopter to the airport in Mariupol and toured several neighborhoods, spoken with residents and inspected reconstruction sites. Russia’s bombardment reduced much of the city to rubble and some rebuilding is now underway. Images released by Russian television showed Putin touring sites in darkness.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, described the visit as a “full-scale working trip” and stressed that many aspects of it were not planned. There was “no motorcade as such,” he said, adding that Putin had driven himself through the city.

The battle for Mariupol, a port city with a prewar population of about 400,000, was marked by wanton destruction by Russian forces, who bombed a maternity hospital and at times opened fire on apartment buildings with tanks from close range. It also featured the deadliest single assault on civilians during the war, when Russian forces bombed a theater in which residents had taken shelter.

The United Nations said that at least 1,300 died in the battle for the city but that the true toll was likely to have been thousands higher.

The visit to Mariupol by Putin — who now stands accused by the International Criminal Court of presiding over the abduction of Ukrainian children — was his second unannounced trip of the weekend to parts of Ukraine that Russian forces have occupied. On Saturday, he went to Crimea in a visit timed to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the peninsula’s illegal annexation by Russia.

But Mariupol was the closest Putin has come to the front lines since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022 — the city is about 50 miles southeast of the town of Vuhledar, where Russian forces sustained heavy losses just weeks ago and where fierce fighting is ongoing.

Zelenskyy has made several visits to the front line and to recently recaptured parts of the country, including a visit to Bakhmut in December. The embattled city in Donetsk province, which is part of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, also has been held up as a symbol of national resistance.

Putin used the false argument that Ukraine was carrying out a “genocide” in Donbas to help justify his decision to launch the full-scale invasion. Mariupol, which is in Donbas, was also home to much of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, a group whose one-time far-right connections allowed Putin to claim that Russia was invading to “denazify” the country.

Putin has set the full capture of Donbas, where Russia has held substantial territory since 2014, as the main objective of a military offensive that began this year. In October, Moscow illegally annexed four of Ukraine’s provinces, including Donetsk, in a move that was widely condemned.

The timing of Putin’s trip to Mariupol could be interpreted as an affront to the ICC, which on Friday issued the warrant for his arrest. The warrant claims that Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the deportation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia since last year’s invasion. Ukrainian authorities have said that many abducted children were from Mariupol — and Putin’s weekend trip to Crimea notably featured a visit to a children’s center.

Although the ICC warrant could impact Putin’s ability to travel overseas and adds to his isolation from the West, the Kremlin has said it considers the warrant meaningless and vowed not to cooperate.

Mikhail Vinogradov, a political scientist who heads the St. Petersburg Politics Foundation think tank, said Putin’s visit to Mariupol was likely a response to “the ICC warrant and to the criticism that he doesn’t visit combat zones.”

The Kremlin stressed the spontaneity of the visit, possibly to counter recent criticism that events with Putin are “too regulated,” as well as to limit the number of people with awareness of the arrangements ahead of time, Vinogradov said.

On Monday, Putin will host Moscow’s most important ally, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, giving the Russian leader an opportunity to reiterate a theme the Kremlin has emphasized since the war’s start: that international support for Ukraine is limited to Western countries.

China has said the three-day visit by Xi offers Beijing an opportunity to push Putin into peace talks and has hinted that a call with Zelenskyy could follow. But the United States has warned that China is considering whether to provide Russia with weapons for the war as part of a deepening relationship between the two countries. Beijing has rejected the accusation.

There was no immediate comment about Putin’s visit to Mariupol from Zelenskyy, who has vowed to recapture all of the territory lost to Russia, including Crimea. Ukraine’s armed forces are expected to launch an offensive this spring, which some Ukrainian officials have said could involve trying to cut off Crimea from the land that Russia holds in Donbas by pushing south toward the city of Melitopol.

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